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Editorial regarding Cecil County Tier Map issue

(This is an editorial from the March 8th edition of Cecil Whig. It can be found here: http://www.cecildaily.com/opinion/editorials/article_8c522eab-ea67-541e-bbce-86557515cf24.html

Missed opportunity

When County Executive Alan McCarthy announced his appointments for a tier map advisory committee late last week, it left us scratching our heads.

The group was requested by the Cecil County Council to review the controversial land use planning map that the county adopted in late December over the objections of local and statewide conservationists. The intent of the council’s request — at least from our vantage point — was to give serious weight to the criticisms levied by environmentalists and determine whether further restrictions to future development rights should be made.

Instead, McCarthy chose to appoint two farmers, two people with connections to the development and real estate industry and a private landowner who had called for the end of tier maps to his committee. Essentially, his appointments stacked the deck with those whose direct interests will be ensuring that as much land stays out of restrictive zoning as possible — and he wasn’t exactly coy about that move either.

“I have appointed a knowledgeable and diverse group of individuals that I am confident will achieve my ultimate goals of protecting property rights and ensuring that our Comprehensive Plan is not rendered moot by excessive and unnecessary state legislation,” he said in a statement.

Without anyone with a conservation background serving on the committee, how could the concerns of proper land use planning and preservation be adequately vetted?

When we talk with recent transplants to Cecil County, almost always the reason for their arrival is the land’s unspoiled rural charm. Without proper land use planning, however, the county is left at risk of spotty development, potential harm to tributary waters and wasted investment in infrastructure upgrades.

It’s readily apparent, however, that McCarthy shares the same worldview as his predecessor, Tari Moore, who obstinately refused to cede to either Democratic or Republican requests on the county’s map, leaving Cecil County by far the last holdout on the issue statewide. No, both McCarthy and Moore believe that Tier IV designation is the scarlet letter of land use.

But is it?

Much of the land that the county has placed on its map in Tier III, or a zoning level where large lot developments and “rural villages” on septic are expected, already falls into the county’s northern and southern agricultural region zones, which restrict development in subdivisions. The county’s own zoning ordinance established those zones “to maintain the existing rural character of the county by encouraging the continuation of agricultural and forestry uses.”

In fact, the only land designated by the county for Tier IV, or preservation and conservation areas where no major subdivisions are allowed on septic, is land that is already preserved. We’re not sure that the community-at-large wants to see development allowed countywide nor does it want to see investments made in Route 40 infrastructure wasted when subdivisions pop up miles from water and sewer lines.

While the county has waged its years-long battle against tier map tyranny, its preservationists have been contending with a drier well of grant funding. State and federal funding sources have begun balking at Cecil County requests in recent years due to the county’s stance. Without a steady prospect of grant dollars, farmers are less likely to seek preservation on their land, opening it to the potential for development.

The Cecil County Farm Bureau has previously said that identifying a dedicated preservation funding stream would greatly appease the concerns of farmers who want to retain the value of their land while also reducing sprawl. Specifically, a preservation installment program, where landowners receive preservation easement funding in annual installments rather than a lump sum, has shown success in Carroll and Harford counties.

If the McCarthy administration does not seriously want to regulate its land use planning, than we advise that it should consider beefing up its land preservation funding to ensure Cecil County retains its rural aesthetic into the future.

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